At the Tribeca Fest: Two bold documentaries expose FBI spying and entrapment


One of the great strengths of the ever-evolving Tribeca Film Festival is its commitment to documentaries. Once again, the festival is showcasing a generous number of nonfiction features covering a wide array of subjects, from politicians like Ann Richards and Barney Frank, to musicians like James Brown, Clark Terry, Nas, Alice Cooper and Bob Weir, to human-rights abuses, environmental concerns and the scourge of poverty.

Two eye-opening documentaries at this year’s fest zero in on the FBI overstepping its bounds in two different eras: the height of the Vietnam War and the post-9/11 age of intensified surveillance. One focuses on anti-war activists who emerge as true American heroes, the other on hapless dupes of a brazen entrapment scheme. In both cases, you leave with a new perspective on the abuses our government is capable of.

Johanna Hamilton’s 1971 provides an insiders’ look at the March 8, 1971 break-in by anti-war activists at a local FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, a small town near Philadelphia. This incident isn’t nearly as celebrated as the publication of the Pentagon Papers a few months later or the 1973 Watergate hearings that brought down the Nixon administration, but it’s a watershed moment for its exposure of illegal spying on and intimidation of dissenting citizens by the U.S. government.

The theft was the handiwork of eight ordinary citizens who hoped to obtain damning evidence of government misconduct by targeting a vulnerable FBI field office like the one in Media. Portions of the documentary play like a suspenseful heist movie, with well-staged re-enactments while the real-life conspirators appear on camera for the first time to recall the details. Shrewdly, they picked the night of the “Fight of the Century,” the momentous boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, to conduct their caper, a few hours when police and feds would likely be preoccupied. Prior to the big night, activist Bonnie Raines had cased the office in question by posing as an eager visitor interested in “opportunities for women in the FBI.”

Bonnie and her husband John are the most intriguing of the group, parents of three young children who risked the future of their family unit for their ideals. The unofficial leader of the group and mastermind of the Media scheme was Bill Davidon, a gentle and brilliant scientist who sadly died just last year.

For any left-leaning member of the “Baby Boom” generation, 1971 is a reminder of just how courageous anti-war activists could be, faced with a Federal Bureau of Investigation led by the much-feared and seemingly invulnerable J. Edgar Hoover. The potential consequences for the Media Eight were enormous and devastating, yet they prevailed, eluded detection, and brought national attention to abuses in a fashion that changed America…for a time.

The festival debut of 1971 couldn’t be timelier in light of the current controversy surrounding Edward Snowden’s revelations of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens. (In fact, Laura Poitras, who just shared a Pulitzer Prize for her role in the NSA exposé, is credited as a co-executive producer of 1971). The Snowden case is arguably more problematic, but you can draw a direct line from the pioneering activists of 1971 to Snowden and the systematic invasiveness he’s revealed. More than 40 years later, those crusading Baby Boomers seem pretty damn admirable. What will history say about Snowden?

No less revelatory is The Newburgh Sting, David Heilbroner and Kate Davis’ account of the real story behind a foiled New York terrorist plot that made headlines in 2009. The reports at the time were shocking and unsettling: the arrest of four men midway through a mission to bomb Jewish centers in the Bronx and shoot down a plane. Muslim extremists had been on the loose in the depressed town of Newburgh, 60 miles north of New York City!

What the news media failed to uncover was that this terrorist scheme was entirely the fabrication of the FBI and its informant, a shady Pakistani businessman who recruited one not-very-devout Muslim small-time criminal and three of his buddies with the promise of a quarter-million dollars if they joined his crazy plan for jihad. There was no terrorist cabal at the unluckily targeted mosque in Newburgh; the FBI created it, with impoverished black men as their easy patsies. This wasn’t an appeal to radical convictions, it was an appeal to make a big score—and it’s not necessarily clear who was being played (or at least thought they were doing the playing).

The clearly entrapped “Newburgh Four” are currently serving a 25-year prison term, recently lost an appeal, and may be headed to the Supreme Court, where their prospects are none too bright. As the entertainingly outspoken aunt of one of the four suggests, the sentence should have been “five years for not having any common sense.” And, when it comes to ruthless, opportunistic and fearsome power, “there ain’t no gang like the government.”